Telling Luba’s Story 2 – Choosing a Form

Luba at age 80

Why me? Why did I survive while so many others didn’t”

Tears welled in Luba’s eyes.  She slumped in her chair and turned to me for answers. “Why me?”

I stared at the bowl of borscht in front of me.  What should I say? That she was lucky? That she was saved for some higher purpose?

I reached over and rested my hand on hers. I didn’t have words to console her. This was the best I could do. Just be there for her.

In my previous entry, Telling Luba’s Story, I told about my mother-in-law’s World War II experiences and my desire to put her story into writing.  I also mentioned my numerous failed attempts to capture it on paper and my hope that by blogging about it, I might – at last – find my footing.

While there are many ways to tell Luba’s story of strength and salvation, the approach I finally choose – its form and genre – will depend on my comfort level and on the answers I give to a couple of key questions:

  • Who will be reading the story?
  • What is my purpose in telling it?

Without firm answers to these questions, I will likely wander (as I have so far), taking a stab here and there at the story, but never really finding my voice or its narrative thread. Am I writing Luba’s story for myself and jotting it down in a journal that only I will read later? Am I writing this for my family and recounting the events so that I can preserve an important piece of family history? Or am I writing a story for a wider audience – teens perhaps – in which case I might be aiming to have Luba’s story published. In that last situation, with potential sales in mind, my goal is to entertain and inform complete strangers.

imagesHCD4BQISJust to be clear, the choices aren’t mutually exclusive. I could write a story with cross purposes, one that preserves family history while at the same time reaching a wider market. And that, in fact, is where I’ve decided to head. It’s taken a few years of soul-searching to figure this out, mind you, but, yes, if I’m going to write the story at all I would like to write one that honours Luba’s legacy – a keepsake for my family – but also one that might satisfy a wider audience.

Of the forms available to me, I’ve narrowed my choices. Here are 4 that might fulfill my goals.

Historical fiction

In this form, events from Luba’s life unfold within a framework rooted in the times and places of history. If I choose this form, Luba would be my protagonist and her experiences would likely become the basis for my plot. I’d have a lot of latitude to play with all kinds of elements, however. I could, for example, introduce a number of fictional characters. Or I could spice up the story with a few plot twists that are purely imaginary but wholly within the scope of history. In essence, the story would be based on Luba’s life, but I could deviate from the factual material by fictionalizing some of it.


In this form, I would recount the events of Luba’s journey. Although I could play with the structure of the story, it would be pretty much a straight forward, stick-to-the facts approach told in third person.

Narrative Non-fiction

Also called creative non-fiction, in this form the story is entirely based on facts, but the writer uses fiction-writing techniques to tell it. By weaving together true-to-life scenes that take the reader through a narrative arc, the writer creates a compelling but true story.

Memoir Novel

half broke horses 3A hybrid of memoir and biography, Jeannette Wallis uses this method to tell the story of Lily Casey Smith, her no-nonsense, resourceful grandmother, in the acclaimed book Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel. Here’s how Bookmarks Magazine describes this story form: “Originally conceived as a biography based on family interviews and historical research, Walls found herself filling in too many blanks for Half Broke Horses to remain a work of nonfiction, so she assumed Smith’s indomitable voice and set out to write a novelistic recreation of Smith’s unconventional life.”

Now back to the mini-scene that started this blog. What form is it? We can pretty much rule out biography. Biographies are usually detached, third person treatments. The game is still on for the other three forms, though.

But now what if I told you that the person “I” is really me and that this conversation with Luba really occurred as I’ve written it? Now the scope is narrowed and narrative non-fiction stands taller than the others.

So there you have it. Four possibilities. Which is best for the story I want to tell? I’m still not sure, but perhaps I’ll have it worked out by the next time I blog. In the meanwhile, if you care to cast your vote, I’d be happy to hear from you.


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